Food & Drink

Fried and true: Fritters for all occasions

You drop a dollop of dough into a skillet of hot oil. It sizzles and browns. A crust is formed around a moist interior, and a fritter is born.

Every culture seems to have some kind of fritter, be it European or African in origin, sweet or savory, plain or fancy, dusted with sugar or dipped in ketchup.

Middle Easterners fry chickpea-mush into falafel. The Spanish and Portuguese make bacalao balls from salt cod and mashed potatoes. The French concoct beignets out of a sticky flour-and-egg paste that puffs up into something light and ethereal when fried in deep fat.

Fried and true, these and many other fritters have made the journey to the New World, where they have been smashed up with whatever is handy -- okra, corn, eggplant, crab, conch, shrimp, salmon, bananas and apples -- and fried into greasy little bites that make for wonderful appetizers, cocktail nibbles and breakfast treats.

I love 'em all.

And whether I'm eating a croqueta on the beach in Puerto Rico or cupping my greasy little palms around a fist-size acaraje (black-eyed pea cake) on the streets of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, they always remind me of home. I grew up gorging on the onion-flecked hush puppies that are a staple at Southern fish fries. And I love to make salmon croquettes, a remnant of hard-scrabble times when fresh salmon was hard to come by and the canned stuff was cheap and plentiful.

When I started gathering recipes for this story, I was tempted to include fried pies, the Southern classic filled with peach, apple, pear, strawberry and the like and sometimes called "tarts." But after a little research and some lively Facebook discourse, I came to realize that fried pies aren't fritters at all. Fried pies (and the empanadas, pastelitos, bunuelos and so forth that are found in Latino kitchens) are made from rolled pastry dough. They are purposeful and constructed, and they are downright elegant compared to fritters, which are sloppy and free form.

Athens cookbook author Rebecca Lang responded to my fritter jitters with a lovely recipe for Corn Fritters With Summer Salsa. More like a corn cake than a hush puppy-style fritter with corn kernels mixed in, Lang's salsa-fied fritters will be a wonderful way to use up the inevitable summer cornucopia of Silver Queen and heirloom tomatoes. They are a cinch to make and don't require vats of spattering oil, either.

On the sweet side, Atlanta author Virginia Willis turned me on to her French beignets. They are not the pillow-shaped confections of New Orleans, but the fried pastry puffs that the French make from pate a choux, a sticky dough that's used for cream puffs and eclairs. Willis adds orange zest to the dough, rolls the warm beignets in sugar and more orange zest, and sprinkles them with powdered sugar before serving. I can't think of a more welcome coffee accompaniment.

In her book "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," Willis suggests filling the beignets with pastry cream for what I'd call the fried equivalent of a cream puff. Another idea: Add fruit and a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream and you'll have a dessert fit for company.

For me, nothing summons the tropics like savory fried fritters and sweet frothy cocktails. Therefore, no fritter fantasia would be complete without a Latino representative. Thank goodness, then, for Sandra A. Gutierrez's Crab Croquetas With Latin Tartar Sauce. Fluffed up with bechamel sauce, the croquettes are a multistep affair, but worth every mouthful. Send out a tray of these and a round of caipirinhas, and you'll have a fritter frenzy on your hands.

CORN FRITTERS WITH SUMMER SALSA

Hands on: 36 minutes

Total Time: 46 minutes, including salsa

Makes: about 24 fritters

Many Southern corn-fritter recipes use a little corn and a lot of batter, yielding a hush puppy-like bread suitable for fish fries. Athens cookbook author Rebecca Lang's fritters are flat little cakes that are dense with corn kernels. Corn is the star here, and the simple tomato salsa plays a supporting role. Fry up a batch to nosh on while standing around the grill.

4 ears fresh corn, husks removed

3/4 cup plain white cornmeal

½ cup milk

1/4 cup self-rising soft-wheat flour (such as White Lily)

1 large egg

½ teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Summer Salsa (see recipe)

Cut kernels from cobs; discard cobs. (You should have about 2 cups kernels; if you have more, save it for another use.)

In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, milk, flour, egg, salt and pepper. Stir in kernels.

Heat vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, spoon batter by tablespoonfuls into hot oil, and flatten gently. Fry 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until browned. (If the skillet becomes dry, you may want to drizzle in a little more oil.) Drain on a wire rack. Top each fritter with 2 teaspoons Summer Salsa.

Adapted from "Southern Living Around the Southern Table" by Rebecca Lang (Oxmoor House, fall 2012)

SUMMER SALSA

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 10 minutes Makes: 11/4 cups

1 cup chopped tomatoes

2 tablespoons diced green onion

½ teaspoon diced, seeded jalapeno pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

4 pitted kalamata olives, finely chopped (plus more to taste)

1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small bowl, stir together tomatoes, green onion, jalapeno, lemon juice, parsley, kalamata olives and salt.

Adapted from "Southern Living Around the Southern Table" by Rebecca Lang (Oxmoor House, Fall 2012)

FRENCH BEIGNETS

Hands on: 35 minutes Total time: 35 minutes

Makes: about 32

Atlanta chef Virginia Willis makes her beignets the French way, using the light pastry dough known pate a choux, which is easy to put together and puffs up magically when fried. These make an extra-special, kid-friendly breakfast. For dessert, plate the beignets with a little fruit and whipped cream or ice cream.

1 cup water

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon plus 1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Finely grated zest of 2 oranges, divided

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Vegetable shortening, for frying

Confectioners' sugar, for serving

Line a baking sheet with a wire rack or paper towels. Set aside. In a small saucepan, combine water, butter, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, salt and half the zest. Bring the mixture to a rapid boil over medium-high heat, about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously. Cook the paste over low heat, beating briskly, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the dough leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. By hand or with an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat the paste until it is smooth and glossy. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Fill a heavy-bottomed saucepan, deep fryer or Dutch oven no more than one-third full with shortening. Heat to 370 degrees. Using a small ice cream or cookie scoop, carefully drop the dough by teaspoonfuls into the shortening. Fry the beignets in batches, turning them once or twice, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove to the prepared baking sheet to drain.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining orange zest and 1 cup granulated sugar. While the puffs are still warm, roll them in the sugar and orange zest mixture until evenly coated. Just before serving, sprinkle the beignets with the confectioners' sugar. Serve immediately.

Adapted from "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company" by Virginia Willis (Ten Speed Press, $35)

CRAB CROQUETAS WITH LATIN TARTAR SAUCE

Hands on: 1 hour, 20 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (includes Thick Bechamel Sauce and Latin Tartar Sauce) Serves: 8 to 10

These do take a little time, so don't wait until the last minute to get started. You can make the croquetas up several hours in advance and chill them in the refrigerator until ready to fry.

3½ cups lump crab meat picked over for shell fragments

1 (4-ounce) jar diced pim entos, drained

1/4 cup minced capers

1/4 cup minced chives

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems)

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Thick Bechamel Sauce (see recipe)

Vegetable oil for frying

Flour for dredging (about 1½ cups)

3 eggs, beaten lightly

Bread crumbs for coating (about 3 cups)

Latin Tartar Sauce (see recipe)

Lemon wedges (optional)

In a large bowl, combine crab meat, pim entos, capers, chives, parsley, salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder. Mix well to combine. Stir the bechamel into the crab mixture, being careful not to break up the crab meat too much. Let the mixture chill for 10 minutes (or up to 1 hour).

Fit a large baking pan with a metal cooling rack. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 360 degrees (or use a deep fryer according to the manufacturer's instructions). Place the flour, eggs and bread crumbs in 3 small, flat pans. Using a 2-inch ice cream scoop, shape the crab mixture into balls and dredge them in the flour, coating them well. Dip them in the eggs and into the bread crumbs to coat completely. Carefully drop the balls into the oil and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, using 2 forks to turn them halfway through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to the prepared cooling rack to drain.

Serve with Latin Tartar Sauce on the side for dipping and optional lemon wedges. These can be frozen for up to 3 months. Freeze the cooled croquetas in a single layer on a baking sheet until solid, then transfer them to zip-top freezer bags. To reheat, bake in a 400-degree oven until heated through.

Adapted from "The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America & the American South" by Sandra A. Gutierrez (University of North Carolina Press, $30)

Latin Tartar Sauce

Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 15 minutes

Makes: 1 1/4 cups

You don't need to make the croquetas to enjoy this tartar sauce, which would taste delicious with any kind of hot or cold seafood.

1 ½ cups mayonnaise

1/4 cup prepared pickle relish

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems)

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems)

2 tablespoons minced capers

1 tablespoon white vinegar, or to taste

2 teaspoons minced chipotle chiles in adobo

1 teaspoon adobo sauce

1 hard-cooked egg, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a medium bowl, combine mayonnaise, relish, parsley, cilantro, capers, vinegar, chiles, adobo and egg. Stir until well-blended. Season with salt and pepper and chill for 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend. Serve well-chilled. Covered and refrigerated, tartar sauce keeps well for up to 2 days.

Adapted from "The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America & the American South" by Sandra A. Gutierrez (University of North Carolina Press, $30)

THICK BECHAMEL SAUCE

Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 15 minutes Makes: 1 1/4 cups

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup minced yellow onion

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add onion and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft but not browned. Add flour and whisk well. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, being careful not to let it turn golden or brown. Remove from the heat. Add milk, whisking vigorously, until the mixture is smooth. Return to the heat and continue cooking for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to let the sauce burn. The sauce should be the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the salt, nutmeg and pepper. Cool for a few minutes before using.

Adapted from "The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America & the American South" by Sandra A. Gutierrez (University of North Carolina Press, $30)

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